Eye-popping paintwork, giant alloy wheels licked with
some serious rubber, distinctive aerodynamic side strakes, deep front and rear
aprons, and glaring yellow (to match the body) and black (to match the trim)
seats, make a very bold statement. This is colour-coding in extremis. Run-of-the-mill
A3s are a bit Plain Jane: the S3 is more Lennox Lewis. Looking the part is one
thing, but having the go to match the show is another. Being a member of the
motoring world's upper hierarchy, Audi cannot afford to soil its vorsprung
durch technik philosophy with a claimed high performance machine that fails
to deliver. So, we approached our test of the S3 with high expectations.
Step inside and settle into those garish seats and the promise of excitement.
They are pukka Recaros, trimmed in the kind of suede normally found in the cockpits
of fully fledged race cars. The padding is firm, the substantial thigh and torso
bolsters more so. Electrically adjustable for cushion height and tilt plus backrest
angle (cushion length can be extended manually), the seats eliminate one concern
when exploiting a car's performance, namely being securely positioned.
Combined with the rake and reach adjustable steering wheel, reasonable pedal
positioning, and a sensibly placed left-foot rest, they provide an excellent
Fire up, and the familiar Audi 1 781 cm3 20-valve motor emits an uncharacteristic
rumble through the pair of chrome-tipped exhausts. It is a step up from the
A3 1,8T, boasting a substantial power increase of 44 kW to a new peak of 154,
delivered just 100 revs further up the scale at 5 800. Torque is improved too,
by 60 N.m to 270, all of which is on tap from 2 100 to 5 000 r/min. Not quite
as brawny as the 165 kW/280 N.m unit in the TT coupé and roadster, it still
has enough on-paper muscle to suggest plenty of spirited behaviour.
And not only in a straight line. For some time now, Audi and stablemate VW
have been offering cars with generously sized wheels and tyres encapsulated
by bold wheelarches, which not only look good but help endow the vehicle with
more than ample grip. Throw in four-wheel drive, a technology that Audi has
had in its product line-up for the last 20 years, and there is added potential
for g-challenging progress, especially in something as compact as the S3.
Head for the open road, and there is immediate notice of what is concealed
beneath the car's skin. The six-speed gearbox has a notchy, mechanical
action - the spring loading is not too heavy - and the clutch is comfortably
weighted, but the four-pot motor offers little in the way of inertia-beating
torque low down. Traction is so good that getting off the mark needs considered
throttle/clutch activation if the occasional stumble is to be avoided, but attempting
to pull away from yield signs at low speed in second gear is a no-no. It is
only when the tacho needle glides past 2 500 that you will find the expected
Thing is, the S3 is deceptively quick. The build integrity of the body, the
quality of the fixtures and fittings, and the apparent excellent NVH control
combine to subdue any mechanical mayhem - even the turbo adds to the noise
damping process, but not to the point that the engine cannot be heard being
worked hard. In this guise, the motor does not sing sweetly, and begins losing
penetration when revs approach 6 000, but keep it on its expansive torque plateau
and it delivers a linear progression of thrust. The gearbox, with its unusual
twin output shaft configuration (see sidebar), carries ratios that provide fairly
evenly spaced speed ranges. It is a joy to use.
Out on the test strip, our car did not quite make the times we were expecting.
Audi claims 6,9 seconds for the sprint to 100 km/h, but the best we managed
was 7,4 - which is still rapid for a car with a test weight of nearly 1,5
tons plus two crew members. (We compared figures with the slightly more powerful,
but heavier, TT Roadster tested in December 2000, and found that third gear
acceleration times were also down, suggesting that the S3 was somehow being
stifled until it was up and running.) The standing kilometre was achieved in
27,81 seconds at 187,2 km/h (anything under 28 seconds is commendable) and top
speed was 236 km/h. Numbers do not always tell the whole story, though, and
our enthusiasm was not dampened. Kept between that 2 100-5 000 max torque spread,
the S3 is quick. Period.
Tackle a series of bends and you will be forgiven for initially under-achieving.
Drive to the four wheels is courtesy of what is basically VW's 4Motion
system that, in turn, was adapted from Audi's quattro format. Essentially,
4Motion is to transverse-engined cars what quattro is to those with in-line
powertrains. Most of the drive
is sent to the front wheels in normal conditions, where EDL (Electronic Diff
Lock) takes care of any wheelspin at speeds up to about 40 km/h. When greater
demands are placed on the drivetrain, an electronically controlled Haldex coupling
on the rear differential apportions torque to the wheels that need it the most
to achieve balanced traction. All this forms part of the car's Electronic
Stability Program (ESP), which can be switched out if the driver wishes to challenge
the laws of physics. Not something we recommend...
But back to the twisties. Simply put, the grip offered by the 225/45 Z-rated
17-inch rubberware is not far short of phenomenal. Go in deep, turn in with
commitment and the nose of the S3 simply charges through without any loss of
composure. Hard-charge through tight corners and the rear can be felt getting
a little out of sorts, but not to the extent of raising a white flag. In such
circumstances, consider the speed of the manoeuvre and the S3's remarkable
handling becomes very apparent. It seduces, teases then deals with everything
that you can demand of it. We can think only of a Subaru Impreza WRX as a serious
A price has to be paid for such handling precision: hard-riding suspension,
especially at low speeds. Pottering around, any serious imperfections in the
road surface reveal themselves with a sharp thwack through the suspension. A
rash of corrugations has a similar effect to a weight loss vibrator. Conversation
becomes staccato. At cruising speeds, the effect is less pronounced, but sharp
ridges and ruts struck by the low-profile tyres simultaneously transmit a nasty
short shockwave. However, while the condition of the country's roads
is hardly exemplary, there is plenty of smooth tar to appreciate, and in an
overall context the S3's firmness is an acceptable trade-off.
Ventilated disc brakes all round with ABS and EBD control are powerful. Dual
front and side airbags are fitted, and the front head restraints are height
and tilt adjustable.
At night, instrument backlighting is a model of clarity. The white-lit rev-counter
needle to-ing and fro-ing over the red characters is like watching a swishing
sword from a Star Wars battle... Fun, and functional.
Dial-a-temp air-con with an auto mode is standard, and the Audi Concert RDS
radio/cassette player has a six-CD shuttle in the boot. Door windows are power
operated and can be opened and closed by holding down the appropriate remote
central locking button when approaching or leaving the car. Rear side windows
hinge open for extra ventilation. Exterior mirrors are electrically adjusted.
Audi's familiar five-function trip computer is part of the spec, too.
Original article from Car